In the run-up to NaNoWriMo, some participants are already feeling like they’re trapped between a rolling boulder and a bottomless pit. They have a character, but no plot – or a plot, but no character – or a character and a plot, but no plan….
The last time I can remember feeling blocked was 47 years ago. I was in the fifth grade, and I had to write a book report. I had no problem with that concept: I’d learned to read and write by age 4, and had begun composing “stories” at 5. My mother taught me to be a touch-typist when I was 10, and I typed up a 50-page novelette from notes I’d been scribbling in a ledger. What blocked me at age 11 were “the rules:” we were restricted to reading and writing about the books in the classroom “library,” and a more insipid selection never disgraced a bookshelf.
I’d begun reading Kipling at age 6, Twain at 7, and had begun and finished all of Laura Ingalls Wilder over the summer I was 8. I’d bought Verne and Doyle and Stevenson when I was 9, and from age 10 had been immersed in reading three sets of “supermarket” encyclopedias (one general, one American History, and one Natural Science). The closest I’d ever come to children’s “category” or “genre” fiction was to read one Red Ryder Adventure, two Tarzans, and a Hardy Boys Mystery.
From a shelf of stories that were supposedly appropriate for 11-year-olds, I had to settle for some dumb book about rabbits.
The rules also said we were to show what we’d learned from the book. Having long before learned all about rabbits from reading The Burgess Animal Book and the Natural Science encyclopedia, and observing them in my back yard, I was hard-pressed to come up with something new. I ended up tallying the baby bunnies every time the doe birthed a litter, and turned in a report about rabbit reproductive habits. I do not remember what grade I got for that paper, but the next time Mrs. B. assigned a book report, I refused to do one, and defiantly took the only “F” of my public-school career.
As an adult, I’ve always enjoyed writing, even when I was producing nothing but passive-voice academic papers. I was in the middle of graduate school when I started writing Irish Firebrands. It was not a product of NaNoWriMo, but after all the years of non-fiction writing, it may have come at the behest of the creative half of my brain, rising up to take a sword and pike out of the thatch, and demanding equal time. I can honestly say that I never felt blocked while I was writing it. I was having too much fun, for the most part (although there were a few unpleasant episodes the Muse on duty said I had to write).
To my colleagues who are trembling in trepidation at the Thirty-day Challenge – or any writers who are currently facing a fight-or-flight situation over their fiction – I say this: Open a new ream of paper. Put it where you can see it from your writing chair. Admire its purity, its sharp, clean corners, and stroke its smooth, unblemished surface. Put a tray beside it.
Then turn to your keyboard. Write whatever you want to write, as much as you feel like writing, and whenever you feel like it. Scraps of dialogue. Beginnings, middles, or ends of scenes. Transcribe your research notes. And at the end of every writing session, take a blank sheet from the block of paper, and put it in the tray.
You are an Artist, your keystrokes carving your Art, as sheet by sheet, the ream is removed, revealing your masterpiece, until the moment you load the paper into your printer, and your finished work walks free.